5 Things You Should Never Do to Family Photos

The key to lasting memories is well-preserved pictures. See more pictures of cool camera stuff.
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You can admire them, share them and even laugh at them but there are some things you should never do to family photos. If you're considering how to store and showcase the pictures you've collected through the years, you'll learn a few important things in this article that can make the difference between deterioration and lasting memories.

Preserving family photos is all about protecting them from the environment and handling them properly. Think of how a museum cares for its artifacts and other treasures. Display and storage temperature, humidity and light remain within specific parameters and touching the exhibits is usually forbidden. Eating, drinking and smoking in galleries or storage areas is typically prohibited as well. In addition, pieces are usually kept in climate-controlled storage the majority of the time and are shown for just weeks or a few months.


Your home is not a museum and your photos are not artifacts, but those images are family treasures. How do you protect their worth? Read on.

5: Never Store Family Photos in the Basement, Attic or Garage

An attic is a good place for storing many things but not your photos.

Photos are best kept in the coolest, driest area in your home, one that doesn't have a huge temperature fluctuation. That's why the attic, basement and garage are not good ideas. Most people don't have climate controls outside the usual living spaces. Although you can maintain cool temperatures in a finished basement, it's difficult to control humidity below-ground which can cause photos to stick together and eventually mold. That's a combination which can destroy them.

Exposure to light also shortens the lifespan of photos. It's not unlike what happens to potato chips that are set in the sun - they go stale. Since light can wreak havoc on photographs, choose a storage space that protects and shields prints from illumination. Fireplaces, furnace vents, light bulbs, candles and sunlight generate light and heat that can destroy family photos. Interior closets -- not adjacent to outside walls -- that are above-ground are ideal locations to store precious photos since they tend to be dry and cool throughout the year. Display your choice portrait for a few months or weeks, then return it to storage while other shots are showcased in rotation.


You shouldn't let your photos hang out with the wrong crowd either. Click ahead to find out why.

4: Avoid Storing Good Photos in the Same Box with Bad Ones

Don't mix the good with the bad.
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Just as one bad apple spoils the whole bunch, pictures that are cracking, peeling, moldy or have insect infestation can ruin other perfectly good photos. One sign of a rotting photo is that it may emit a vinegar-like smell.

Use storage boxes of archival quality. This means they're composed of acid-free materials. You can buy conservator-approved boxes at photography or craft stores [source: Smith]. Proper boxes and albums will also protect your pictures from light, dust, dirt, rodents and insects. Regularly dust and clean the closet where you'll be keeping your portraits and snapshots. Check for bugs like silverfish and book lice while you're at it. If you find any signs of pests, you'll want to inspect all of your stored photos for related damage.


Photos, like people, need personal space too. Read on to learn more.

3: Give Them Some Space

Watch those fingers.

Everyone needs their own space -- photos do, too. Never allow negatives and prints to make contact with each other, frame glass or your bare fingers. Since you'll probably end up putting the majority of your family photos in storage boxes, be sure to place a sheet of acid-free paper between each photo. Without that sheet, photos can stick together and become lost for good. When storing or showcasing pics in an album, select sleeves that are free of PVC -- which can turn photos yellow over time -- or acetate or magnetic-type, which can permanently stick to photo paper, making it impossible to remove the photo without destroying it.

Here's another big no-no: touching the face of a print or negative. Archivists and conservators recommend wearing clean white cotton or linen gloves to pick up photos and negatives. Even then you should hold the photos and negatives by the tips. But if you do handle family photos or negatives without donning gloves, be sure to wash and dry your hands thoroughly to remove dirt and natural oils, which can damage film and prints.


It might seem natural to enjoy some refreshments while looking through old photo albums, but beware. We'll discuss why on the next page.

2: Don't Eat or Drink Near Family Photos

Don't eat or drink near family photos if you want them to be around for very long. OK, so who hasn't spilled crumbs and coffee on a keyboard and lived to tell? But you may not be so fortunate when it comes to photographs. Liquids and food coming into contact with film or prints spells doom. If the food doesn't immediately distort or destroy your keepsake photos, there's a good chance it eventually will, even if you clean it off right away. Photos don't distinguish between dirt, dust and moisture and food, drink and scraps. You may want to think twice about displaying family pictures in the kitchen -- or anywhere in close proximity to food or humidity.

You've heard it said, you get what you pay for. That's certainly true when it comes to our tip on the next page.


1: Never Use Polyvinyl Album Pages or Black Paper Albums

Those classic black pages are not your best bet.

They may be cheap and easy, but polyvinyl album pages and black paper albums should be avoided. Polyvinyl album pages have a magnetic-like-quality clear film that seals your photos onto a stiff backing similar to thick poster board. Black paper album pages contain dyes that can harm photographs. Back in the day, photographers glued photos to black paper, not knowing any better. Since then, we've learned more about the chemicals in this type of paper and, as a result, better alternatives now exist.

You can find acid-free albums at retail photography or camera stores, craft stores, and department and drug stores. Look for labels or markings that specify that the products are "acid-free." If you want to invest in archival-quality albums, you can find them at archive or art supply stores.


For more information on preserving family photos and related topics, see the links in the next section.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • AIC. "Caring for Your Treasures." American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works. (Dec. 8, 2010).http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=633&parentID=497
  • Carter, Laura W., "Taking Care of Your Family Paper, Image and Book Treasures." Athens-Clarke County Library. 2004. (Dec. 8, 2010).http://www.clarke.public.lib.ga.us/hqdepts/heritage/takingcare.pdf
  • Eastman Kodak Company. "How to Get the Best from your KODAK Inkjet Prints." Technical Information Bulletin 4361. June 20, 2002. (Dec. 8, 2010).http://www.kodak.com/global/plugins/acrobat/en/service/tib/pdf/tib4361.pdf
  • Fahey, Mary. The Care and Preservation of Archival Materials." 2000. (Dec 8, 2010).http://www.thehenryford.org/research/caring/materials.aspx
  • Smith, Karen. "History Online: How to Care for Old Photos in Your Collection." Chadds Ford Historical Society. (Dec. 8, 2010).http://www.chaddsfordhistory.org/history/care.htm
  • State of Utah. "Preserve Photos, Documents and Heirlooms." 2010. (Dec. 8, 2010).http://history.utah.gov/experience_history/preserve_history/documents_photos.html